Ever since the fall of Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy set off a round of sympathetic insurrections in Europe, revolutions have tended to appear in waves. The recent uprisings in the Middle East are no exception. The reaction to them among liberals and conservatives will be familiar to anyone who experienced the cold war. In those days, conservatives tended to support “anti-Communist” dictators against popular uprisings, and liberals tended to support the “democratic movements” against these “corrupt dictators,” even if their leaders happened to be Pol Pot or Ho chi Minh. Now, thanks to the Internet and other modern means of spreading the word, the related narratives on the left and right are similar, but more uniform, pervasive, and predictable than ever.
In the case of Egypt, for example, conservatives seldom write anything concerning recent events there without raising the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberals, on the other hand, are cheering on the insurgency, scoffing at the suggestion that it could ever be hijacked by Islamist radicals. For the most part, the proponents of the two narratives possess little or no reliable information on the balance of political forces in Egypt, and certainly not enough to support the level of certainty with which they represent their points of view. As with earlier revolutions, the notion that even the best informed human beings are sufficiently intelligent to reliably predict the eventual outcome is merely another one of our pleasant delusions.
In fact, the belief of the vast majority of those on either side of the issue that the point of view they support with such zeal was arrived at independently via the exercise of their own intellectual powers is also a delusion. The utter sameness of these “independent opinions,” as like to each other as so many peas in a pod, and their almost inevitable association with an assortment of other “independent opinions” of like nature, demonstrate their real character as ideological shibboleths that define the current intellectual territory of the in-groups of the left and the right.
What, then, of Egypt? Who can say? The political history of the Middle East, the rarity and evanescence of democratic governments in the region, the traditional role of the military as a quasi-political party holding all the trump cards, and the lack of experience in or ideological attachment to popular government do not encourage optimism that a modern democratic government will emerge from the current chaos. Still, as noted above, none of us has the intellectual horsepower to predict with certainty what will happen, although of all the guesses being made, some of them will surely be lucky. One can only suggest to the Egyptian people that, given the outcome of some of the other “popular movements” that were greeted with similar euphoria during the past century, it would behoove them to be very careful whom they allow to lead them.
Philosopher Nassim Taleb is famous for his theories regarding black swans, described in his book of that name as events of large magnitude and disproportionate consequence that are unexpected and unpredictable. According to the summary of his ideas on his webpage,
We don’t understand the world as well as we think we do and tend to be fooled by false patterns, mistake luck for skills (the fooled by randomness effect), overestimate knowledge about rare events (Black Swans), as well as human understanding, something that has been getting worse with the increase in complexity.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has my vote for the greatest Black Swan of the 20th century. As Taleb predicted, once it happened, it immediately became a basis for “overestimating our knowledge about rare events.” Transformed in the public imagination from an unprecedented and unpredicted anomaly into a commonplace, it now serves as the basis for all sorts of fanciful predictions, the most prominent of which are probably the recurring reports of China’s eminent demise. Insty just linked another typical example penned by Lawrence Solomon. According to the first two paragraphs:
In 1975, while I was in Siberia on a two-month trip through the U.S.S.R., the illusion of the Soviet Union’s rise became self-evident. In the major cities, the downtowns seemed modern, comparable to what you might see in a North American city. But a 20-minute walk from the centre of downtown revealed another world — people filling water buckets at communal pumps at street corners. The U.S.S.R. could put a man in space and dazzle the world with scores of other accomplishments yet it could not satisfy the basic needs of its citizens. That economic system, though it would largely fool the West until its final collapse 15 years later, was bankrupt, and obviously so to anyone who saw the contradictions in Soviet society.
The Chinese economy today parallels that of the latter-day Soviet Union — immense accomplishments co-existing with immense failures. In some ways, China’s stability today is more precarious than was the Soviet Union’s before its fall. China’s poor are poorer than the Soviet Union’s poor, and they are much more numerous — about one billion in a country of 1.3 billion. Moreover, in the Soviet Union there was no sizeable middle class — just about everyone was poor and shared in the same hardships, avoiding resentments that might otherwise have arisen.
Right. Except for the fact that the Chinese economy today does not parallel that of the latter-day Soviet Union (how prominent were Soviet consumer goods in the U.S. market in 1988?), the mentality of China’s citizens has nothing in common with the descriptions of pervasive despair in the Soviet Union so poignantly described by David Remnick in Lenin’s Tomb, and the rest of these “obvious” parallels amount to a broad comparison of apples and oranges. Such stuff might have figured prominently in Taleb’s book if it had been written a little earlier. In a chapter about World War I, for example, he describes how no one expected it before it happened, and everyone suffered from the illusion they had known about it and predicted it all along after the fact. They then used it as the basis for all kinds of delusional predictions, almost none of which came true. Copious examples can be found in the intellectual journals of the decade following the war.
Meanwhile, predictions of China’s doom have become something of a cottage industry for some writers. Gordon Chang, for example, wrote a book in 2001 predicting China’s collapse not later than 2011, and spend the intervening years writing articles proving inductively and deductively that it must be true. China’s leaders apparently didn’t read the book. We have arrived at 2011, and China’s governing class seems to be as alive and kicking as ever. Black Swans can always happen, but I will not be too astounded if they are still around and still cheating their “inevitable” fate in 2021.
China’s rise is itself a Black Swan of sorts. She was a basket case in the 1920’s, and still patronized as little removed from a third world country as recently as the 1980’s. Many in the West are uncomfortable with her sudden rise to superpower status. However, it’s unlikely she will be toppled by wishful thinking. In the long term, her government is in a state of unstable equilibrium. It does not govern by the consent of the governed, and bases its legitimacy on a failed alien philosophy which its economic policy entirely contradicts. However, Rome’s government was similarly unstable during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Somehow she managed to stagger on for another four centuries and more.
Now they’re demanding a triple kowtow from one of our allies. Turkey has noticed the same thing. They’re demanding an apology from another of our allies for daring to react to a deliberate Turkish provocation. I’m surprised they bother with our allies. Why not just demand an apology directly from the US government? After all, we are without peers when it comes to groveling before our enemies. Vietnam would do well to take heed as China bullies her in the South China Sea. If she leans on us for support, she will be leaning on a weak reed. She should have learned that from her own history.
Whenever the nation goes on the warpath, hearts on the left fondly turn to thoughts of Vietnam. Remember what they said about about the prospects of the Bush surge succeeding in Iraq? The Volokh Conspiracy came up with a great list of reminders a while back. I quote them here again to help keep the memory fresh.
The only real question about the planned “surge” in Iraq — which is better described as a Vietnam-style escalation — is whether its proponents are cynical or delusional. — Paul Krugman, NYT, 1/8/07
There is nothing ahead but even greater disaster in Iraq. — NYT Editorial, 1/11/07
What anyone in Congress with half a brain knows is that the surge was sabotaged before it began. — Frank Rich, NYT, 2/11/07
Keeping troops in Iraq has steadily increased the risk of a bloodbath. The best way to reduce that risk is, I think, to announce a timetable for withdrawal and to begin a different kind of surge: of diplomacy. — Nicholas Kristof, NYT, 2/13/07
W. could have applied that to Iraq, where he has always done only enough to fail, including with the Surge — Maureen Dowd, NYT, 2/17/07
The senator supported a war that didn’t need to be fought and is a cheerleader for a surge that won’t work. — Maureen Dowd, NYT, 2/24/07
Now the ”surge” that was supposed to show results by summer is creeping inexorably into an open-ended escalation, even as Moktada al-Sadr’s militia ominously melts away, just as Iraq’s army did after the invasion in 2003, lying in wait to spring a Tet-like surprise. — Frank Rich, NYT, 3/11/07
Victory is no longer an option in Iraq, if it ever was. The only rational objective left is to responsibly organize America’s inevitable exit. That is exactly what Mr. Bush is not doing and what the House and Senate bills try to do. — NYT Editorial, 3/29/07
There is no possible triumph in Iraq and very little hope left. — NYT Editorial, 4/12/07
… the empty hope of the “surge” … — Frank Rich, NYT, 4/22/07
Three months into Mr. Bush’s troop escalation, there is no real security in Baghdad and no measurable progress toward reconciliation, while American public support for this folly has all but run out. — NYT Editorial, 5/11/07
Now the Bush administration finds itself at that same hour of shame. It knows the surge is not working. — Maureen Down, NYT, 5/27/07
Mr. Bush does have a choice and a clear obligation to re-evaluate strategy when everything, but his own illusions, tells him that it is failing. — NYT Editorial, 7/25/07
The smart money, then, knows that the surge has failed, that the war is lost, and that Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia. — Paul Krugman, NYT, 9/14/07
A nice collection, no? Hope springs eternal, though. With any luck we’ll be defeated in Afghanistan.
Oh, I agree, Obama seems inept, weak, and lacking in any detectable skills as a leader. But was Bush really all that much better? He certainly didn’t stop the cancerous growth of big government. He launched a completely unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq, freeing the country of a bloody dictator in the process. For that, most Iraqis are probably more or less as grateful as the journalist who threw his shoes at W. The war cost us and continues to cost us blood and treasure that we can ill afford. He got us into another war in Afghanistan that was certainly more justifiable, but failed to take the perfectly sound advice of Donald Rumsfeld to pack up and leave quickly when it was over. Instead, we embarked on a neocon’s wet dream of “nation building,” with the predictable result that we are still bogged down there, with the left and right in cordial agreement that we face almost inevitable defeat.
Other than that, as the recent “peace flotilla” stunt reminded us, he completely failed to understand the burgeoning threat of a resurgent and politicized Islam that has now become the main contender to fill the ideological vacuum left by the demise of Communism. The evidence is all still out there on the Internet. For example, he strongly backed Turkey’s entry into the EU, as can be seen in this story that appeared in the Washington Post back in October, 2006. Fortunately, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had other ideas. (Of course, the Turks, with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, are probably jumping for joy that they didn’t stumble into the EU’s economic black hole, but that’s another story.) Read the article, and you’ll see how thoroughly Bush was bamboozled by Turkey’s Islamist prime minister Erdogan. It was “in our interests” for the rapidly radicalizing Turks to become a part of Europe. The U.S. and its Turkish “strategic partner” were “focusing on ways to counter extremism.” Bush nodded sagely as Erdogan inveighed against the use of terms like “Islamic terrorism.”
In a word, I wouldn’t exactly put nostalgia for Bush in the U.S. in the same category as nostalgia for Stalin in Russia, but it still doesn’t make a lot of sense. The choice between Bush and Obama is basically the choice between being internationally hated or internationally despised. Take your pick.
The BP debacle has spawned some previously untapped new variants of America bashing in the UK. Not that the British were remarkably behindhand in piling on during the worst of the latest climax in European anti-Americanism that reached its peak several years ago. It was so much the more surprising to learn in an article by Peter Hitchens that appeared on the website of the Daily Mail that his countrymen have been “fawning” on the United States. Of course, the citizens of our mother country are noted for their reserve, but I have visited many British websites and forums in recent years, and never discovered anything that it would ever occur to me to describe as “fawning.” Be that as it may, the Brits, like most Europeans, have remarkably thin skins. They have been dishing out abuse to America with the best of them for years, but, as their response to criticism over the BP affair demonstrates, they can’t take it.
Hitchens’ whining piece complaining about our “hostility” because our President dares to criticize a British company for unleashing the greatest environmental disaster in our history is a case in point. The author wears his paranoia on his sleeve. For example,
Americans may say they love our accents (I have been accused of sounding like Princess Di’) but the more thoughtful ones resent and rather dislike us as a nation and a people, as friends of mine have found out by being on the edge of conversations where Americans assumed no Englishmen were listening.
Perhaps it’s just that the “thoughtful” among my fellow countrymen have been hiding their opinions from me as well all these years, but I can honestly say that I can’t recall a single conversation in which the English were singled out for resentment and dislike, unless Hitchens is referring to George III. On the contrary, other than the occasional Irish Catholic with romantic notions about the IRA, Americans who pay any attention to the English at all tend to be Anglophiles.
Other than that, the article is filled with the usual bitching and moaning about America that we have long been accustomed to. There is one novelty that I haven’t seen elsewhere, perhaps because it is too far-fetched even for most Europeans. Quoting Hitchens,
It was American pressure that forced us out of the first rank of naval powers in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which led to our defeat at Singapore 20 years later.
I had to laugh out loud when I read that bit. It assumes the reader is completely ignorant of the relevant history. In the first place, the treaty didn’t force Britain “out of the first rank of naval powers.” It established a ratio of 5-5-3 in fighting ships among the treaty powers England, the United States, and Japan, respectively. The British and U.S. navies were the most powerful in the world at the time. How, then, did the treaty force Britain “out of the first rank of naval powers?” In fact, the Naval Treaty of 1922 was one of the greatest triumphs of common sense over fear and hysteria in the annals of international relations. It ended a nascent arms race and was of great benefit to all the signatories, and not least to the British. At the time the Conference was called, the pound sterling was at its lowest point, British citizens were paying crippling taxes, and England was facing another period of naval expansion they could ill afford, forced on them by the building programs of the United States and Japan.
They owed the United States a massive debt, and every penny they paid would have directly benefited our building program. On paper, at least, we had already passed Britain in naval strength, and our superiority was only likely to increase. Recall that when countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and even Denmark had challenged British sea power in the past, it had led to war with an England which felt her life menaced by rival naval powers. In fact, war with the United States was seriously contemplated at the time by many Englishmen as the only alternative to a ruined England and a disintegrated Empire.
In the upshot, the British delegates were delighted by the agreement, as well they should have been. A crippling arms race was avoided, and taxes were lowered. The treaty was of such obvious advantage to England that the prevailing sentiment in the US media was that we had been hoodwinked. They had good reason to feel that way. In 1920 the United States already had an advantage over England in tonnage of capital ships of 1,117, 850 to 808,200. Our advantage in battle guns was 340 to 284. As provided by the treaty, tonnages were reduced to 525,850, 558,950, and 301,320 for the United States, Great Britain and Japan, respectively, giving a slight advantage to the British. The very real and serious potential causes for war among the signatories were removed for many years into the future.
As for the treaty causing the British defeat at Singapore 20 years later, that claim has to take the cake for the most ludicrous of all the ludicrous charges directed against us from Europe in recent years. How, exactly, would crippling her economy by charging ahead with the building of a fleet of obsolete battleships have helped the British 20 years later? As anyone who knows anything about her situation in the years immediately preceding World War II is aware, the economic burden of rearmament in the face of the German threat was painful enough for her to bear as it was. The cost of maintaining a massive navy in an arms race with Japan and the United States for the preceding 20 years would have made it well nigh impossible. When war did come, Japanese airpower made short work of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, the two battleships that actually were on hand to defend Singapore. In the fighting that followed, a superior British force was defeated by a Japanese army perilously short of supplies in one of the greatest stains on the proud tradition of British arms ever recorded. We Americans don’t blame the Bladensburg Races on anything but the cowardice of our troops and the ineptitude of our commanders. I suggest that the British consider the possibility that they may bear some responsibility for their own abject defeats as well.
Well, we did have a difficult adolescence, and perhaps one can’t blame our dear old mother country for occasionally being a bit testy with us. The next time Hitchens directs his poison pen our way, however, he would probably do well to pick a more convincing grievance than the Naval Treaty of 1922.
I’ve written about the Amity/Enmity Complex in earlier posts. The term describes the dual nature of the innate human behavioral traits generally associated with morality. Simply put, it describes our tendency to associate other human beings with “in-groups,” which are associated with good, and “out-groups,” which are associated with evil. The moral rules one is expected to observe in interactions with members of ones in-group are generally those we associate with moral good. Completely different rules apply to the out-group, whose members are generally viewed with hostility and can be treated accordingly. Occasionally this takes such extreme forms as mass murder and genocide, as, for example, in the case of the Jews during the Holocaust, or the “bourgeoisie” under Communism. In America, the phenomenon commonly manifests itself as irrational hatred of those with opposing political beliefs, as the “liberals,” or the “tea-baggers.”
For those still having trouble seeing the obvious, the “enmity” side of the Complex is once again on display in Kyrgyzstan, where, at last report, 75,000 members of the Uzbek minority were fleeing their homes, and scores were killed and hundreds injured. It is another data point to add to the many thousands of others that have occurred throughout recorded human history. One would think it had happened enough by now to convince even the most obtuse among us that human morality is a dangerous nostrum to apply in dealing with the relations between nation states, ethnic groups, political parties, and the other types of social groups of unprecedented size that have emerged very recently in human history.
Morality is, inevitably, a two edged sword. For every “good” defended, an “evil” must be identified and defeated. The identification of those who are “evil” is typically arbitrary, and can quickly change to include those who were previously seen as “good.” Consider, for example, the Jews in Israel, who were the darlings of the left, and “good” at the time the movie “Exodus” was made, but have now become “evil” for those of the same political persuasion because they are no longer well suited to play the role of “victims” to be “saved.” Similarly, those who were only considered different a few years ago can quickly be perceived as the evil enemy in response to any number of stimuli in the form of social or political change, heightened competition for resources, ideological and religious propaganda, etc., and, literally overnight, become the victims of bloody witchhunts.
This sort of thing has been going on for a very long time, and is becoming increasingly murderous and destructive. Is it not high time for us to finally learn to know ourselves and climb off the treadmill?
At 95 years and counting, Turkey cries “murder” over a propaganda stunt, but continues to deny responsibility for the genocidal murder of 1.5 million Armenians in World War I. Those murders are amply documented, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
If you’re interested in the dead tree media’s narrative of the day, just check The Washington Post’s designated propaganda column on the upper right of the front page. You’ll usually find all the talking points that are fit to print. The headline of today’s column sums it up in five words; “Nations decry blockade of Gaza.”
The article might have been written by a Hamas press agent. The byline; White House Urges Change. Right, we all know how that “change” thing works. In this case, “change” means the unchecked flow of rockets and other war material into Gaza from the sea, to supplement the more limited supply coming through tunnels from Egypt. The first sentence reads,
Israel’s botched and deadly commando raid on an aid flotilla has set off widespread international criticism of the Gaza blockade, with popular opinion in many countries swinging heavily against Israel and even the United States urging its ally to find new ways to allow aid shipments to reach the Palestinians.
The Post doesn’t further describe the magical and instantaneous polling process that allowed it to discover that “popular opinion in many countries” was “swinging heavily against Israel” a mere one day after the incident. There is no mention of the responsibility of Hamas and its dupes in the “peace movement” for deliberately provoking a violent incident that cost the lives of nine people. It is all the fault of Israel and its “botched and deadly commando raid.” No mention is made of the fact that the promoters of this propaganda stunt made no attempt whatsoever to negotiate with Israel on the delivery of aid, and that Hamas is refusing it in spite of Israel’s agreement to let it pass through the checkpoints. It’s all Israel’s fault. It must “find new ways” to get the aid through in spite of the demonstrated intransigence of its enemies.
Reading on we find that the raid “has endangered the push for sanctions against Iran and peace efforts in the Middle East,” as if such sanctions weren’t an effort in futility that will have zero effect on the government of Iran whether “the push” succeeds or not, and as if the “peace efforts in the Middle East” were not pabulum for idiots who can never seem to grasp the fact that there would be peace in the Middle East tomorrow if Israel’s enemies conceded her right to exist, and that any “peace process” that doesn’t insist on that right is nothing but a charade.
We learn that the raid “tarnished Israeli relations with onetime allies, especially Turkey,” as if the Erdogan regime hadn’t been leading Turkey away from secular democracy towards an Islamic theocracy for years. There’s the usual, mealy-mouthed he said, she said,
Israeli officials say the demonstrators attacked the commandos with axes and metal rods, while flotilla organizers say the troops used excessive force on unarmed civilians.
No matter that video footage of the incident clearly shows these “unarmed civilians” swarming the Israeli boarders and beating them with iron bars and clubs. As usual, Israelis aren’t allowed to act in self defense, no matter that six of her soldiers were hurt, including two with life-threatening injuries.
We get the usual imbecilities about the “legality” of the Israeli blockade, as if international law were not perfectly clear on the point:
Central to the criticism of Israel were questions about the legality of its actions. The raid took place on a ship that was apparently unarmed, in international waters. But Allen Weiner, a former State Department lawyer and legal counsel at the U.S. Embassy at The Hague, said Israel was technically operating legally.
Israel wasn’t “technically operating legally.” It was operating legally, period. The last time I looked, the international law relating to sea blockades had changed very little over the last 150 years, and it unequivocally supports Israel’s right to blockade Gaza.
It goes without saying that WaPo “doesn’t notice” the strong support for Israel in venues such as the blogosphere, talk radio, and Foxnews. That would only confuse her readers, who are expected to believe that “peace activists” with big mouths have a monopoly on deciding “world opinion.”
In a word, the narrative hasn’t changed. Regardless of the facts, it’s always Israel’s fault, her enemies share none of the blame, she has no right to defend herself, the fact that hundreds of rocket attacks were launched against her from Gaza doesn’t matter, nor does the fact that her enemies have the power to bring peace to the region immediately, simply by accepting Israel’s right to exist. Many inside and outside Israel have been pointing out that her leaders should have known the purpose of the flotilla was not to deliver aid, but to provoke an incident that could be exploited for propaganda, and reacted accordingly. True, but that’s not really the story here. The story is the willingness of the western media to serve as uncritical propaganda mouthpieces for people who have launched thousands of attacks deliberately intended to murder civilians. The story is that media’s studied indifference to those crimes as long as their intended victims are Jews.
Israel has a right to exist. Unless she prevails, her people face another Diaspora in an increasingly hostile world at best. If the “peace activists” have their way, it is more likely that they will face another Holocaust. I and many other gentiles may not count in the Post’s assessment of “world opinion,” but we wish her well, for all that. May her people never lose their nerve or their courage.